Bunny Bliss in Harajuku

In recent years there has been something of a boom in pet cafes across Japan. Starting with cats, these themed cafes have now extended to other creatures, including rabbits, owls, and even goats.

Japanese houses are small, and keeping a pet is difficult for most people. So, whenever a Tokyoite feels the need to get out of their tiny apartment and spend some time playing or simply sitting with a cute four-legged friend, a pet café is the place to head to!

Naturally, tourists have also shown an interest in these cafes. Whether it’s because they miss their pet from home, or perhaps they are just curious about the concept, visiting a pet café has started to creep on to the list of ‘things to do in Japan’.

Being allergic to cats, I decided rabbits were the pet for me, and during my last trip to Tokyo I decided to head to Ra.a.g.f. ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ – a rabbit café in trendy Harajuku.

Ra.a.g.f.

After a bit of lost wandering through the boutiques and backstreets of Harajuku, I finally stumbled upon ‘Rabbit and grow fat’ (brilliant name!). It wasn’t the most fragrant of Harajuku buildings, but once inside the café I was in a little haven of bunny bliss.

Ra.a.g.f.

The staff spoke no English, but welcomed me warmly and presented me with a list of rules and prices. For a small fee I could stay for 30 minutes (700 yen) or an hour (1,100 yen), have a drink, and choose a rabbit to play with and feed (150 yen for rabbit snacks).

Ra.a.g.f.

Feed me!

The rabbits are all kept in cages, and guests can look at them and stroke them and choose one to play with. If you get bored of the rabbit you’ve chosen, you can ask to switch it for another one (which I felt kind of bad doing, although I’m sure the rabbits don’t mind!).

Ra.a.g.f.

I chose this little chap to keep me company. He was very ‘genki’ (energetic) and dashed about the café having the time of his life.

Ra.a.g.f.

Play with me!

Animal welfare is a concern of mine, but all of the rabbits at Ra.a.g.f. seemed happy and healthy. The staff clearly loved the animals and enjoyed their jobs, and the atmosphere in the café was one of being in someone’s home.

So, next time you’re in Tokyo why not take a break from the hustle and bustle of the shops and chill out with a cup of tea and a fluffy friend?

Ra.a.g.f.

Inspirational Ishinomaki – 3 years on from the Tsunami

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Recently, I led our A Northern Soul Tour through the wonderful Tohoku region of Japan, following in the footsteps of arguably its greatest poet, Matsuo Basho, who took 6 months of life to hike what became known as Oku No Hosoi Michi, the Narrow Road to the Deep North. The 1200-mile odyssey spawned prolific travel writing and poetry and highlighted this truly wondrous region of Japan.

Although the Japanese themselves are well aware of the region’s many appealing attractions, the (undiscerning) majority of foreign travel companies and travelers overlook it. That was to our advantage recently – it was our own adventure, exclusive in that we met just one Taiwanese group in 2 weeks after leaving Tokyo and heading north!

However, herein lies the sad legacy of the 2011 Great Northeastern Earthquake, which still deeply affects the golden people of Tohoku, both emotionally, economically and in their daily lives. Unfortunately, in an industry where awards are collected like pin badges, somehow validating the quality and trustworthiness of a company, the responsible tourism bandwagon is a crowded bus that every travel firm seems to claim a seat on. Some firms hold, however, suspect credentials.

Therefore, at Insidejapantours, we felt it crucial that during a 2 week trip of World Heritage Sites, Nature Trails, zen gardens, sumptuous Japanese feasts and traditional Japanese accommodation with its immaculate service, that we should drop in on one of the afflicted towns of the ensuing tsunami.

Ishinomaki is one such place – a fishing town that, for a while at least, became known to the world. Youtube satiated the voyeuristic lust for the devastating – a disaster unwinding before our very eyes, was satiated as the earth’s assertiveness over humanity was. It was hard-hitting, for some maybe even entertaining, and then it was forgotten. For the people of Ishinomaki, every day touches on that fateful event in some way, for all who survived. 4761 perished, and some 420 people are to this day unaccounted for. The eternal pain and grief that this lack of closure must cause is unimaginable. The sense of loss that this town has had to endure is immense, yet, as perhaps you can imagine, you will not meet a finer community of smiling, warm, welcoming people who can claim to have a clearer perspective on life than someone like myself.

My first visit with the group was a non-scheduled side excursion. We arrived late afternoon so the sun had already set. Although dark, I believe my group understood the reasons to be there. We grabbed 2 taxis and I asked  both drivers, who were on duty on that day, to take us where they felt we should see. One driver relayed how he had been parked in the station- front taxi rank at 2:46pm, March 11, 2011, when the huge 8.9 temblor struck off the Tohoku coast. An hour later and the station area, some 3km away from the seafront was inundated with waist high water.

Perhaps the fate of this lucky driver was sealed by falling debris in the station due to the quake. He and other taxi drivers offered comfort and warmth by allowing the injured to sit in the cab until the shaking stopped. He was then involved in helping those (numbers unknown) and so was off duty, away from the coast, and therefore relatively safe.

We were driven to the seafront, peered out into the still darkness which permeated a chillingly menacing presence in the cold darkness. Then onto the famous memorial and logo board, painted just after the disaster. An eternal lantern remains lit, and flowers are regularly laid. The words Ganbarou Ishinomaki (Let’s Go Ishinomaki) are emblazoned upon timber panelling as a motivator and a 6.9metre wave height marker gives context in an area that had 1800 buildings – the majority completely destroyed.

After wracking up 60 pounds in taxi fares, we asked to be dropped in the restaurant area of town. I wanted to put a little money into the pockets of a locally-run business. A little disappointing, yet ironically of course immensely heartening was the fact that I could not find anywhere for my group on a Saturday night – all fully booked. Good to see people are eating out, socializing and enjoying each others’ company – moving on and up. Hence, with the cold and time running out, it was time to leave and head back to the city of Sendai.

For me that encounter was not enough though, and so the week after my tour finished, I made the trip back to the town to spend a day interacting and exploring, in order to put more context to everything. Partly for personal reasons, partly for work, I needed to return to talk to more people, spend a little more money and see the town in the light of day. I rented a cycle and took most of the afflicted areas in.

Next year, I hope to have Insidejapantours groups and individual travelers staying in Ishinomaki for a night – the local community will warm to you, you will bring a smile to faces, perspective on life will be gleaned, and hey, if you feel a little good about yourself – well great! Please go to Ishinomaki when you get the chance!

Here are some the few photos that I took on that moving day:

Left to Die

This former shop, right on the Kitakami River remains derelict and contorted, untouched since the disaster.

Lost Home, Lost Hope

House and garden in ruins. On the Kitakami RIver, a mile from the seafront.

Deleted Edo House 2

Some buildings received more renovation and maintenance than others. In the background, the manga artist, Ishinomori Shotaro-inspired Manga Museum is open for visitors, and is one of the tourist attractions of the town.

The Hill that saved lives - Hiroriyama

This charming little girl was playing in the park on Hiroriyama Hill with her grandparents. The sign designates the hill as an official disaster evacuation point. It saved 100s of lives as many climbed the hill to avoid the incoming mass of seawater.

Hand Written Daily Paper - post tsunami

For days, the local Hibi Newspaper could only inform the community by handwriting 6 large sheets of headline news and posting them at city hall and at convenience stores in the afflicted area.

Ishinomaki High School Baseball team - playing for lost schoolmates

I happened across Ishinomaki High School baseball team members. They were running up and down the steps of the shrine complex. These students are truly playing the game in memory of lost friends and family.

6.9 Metre Tsunami Wave Marker

A young woman peers up to the top of the wave marker, just 500 metres from the shore. The tsunami reached 6.9 metres at this point. Kadonowaki District had pretty much all of its 1800 houses and businesses completely destroyed.

Kashima Mikou Shrine

The abandoned Kashima Mikou Temple, 500metres from the shoreline

Wasteland Where 5000 once Lived

Wasteland where once was…

A Business Grows

Heartening to see the young folks of Ishinomaki starting their own businesses. This cafe was remodeled and a new venture started after the original went out of business.

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The same slogan of encouragement, 3 years on. The surrounding area remains a barren wasteland of grass and weeds.

Shoreline 2014

High on Hiyoriyama Hill – this was the point from where extended footage of the disaster was shot.

Sunset on Kitakami River, Ishinomaki

The calm of the Kitakami RIver at sunset – the chaos of the disaster seems impossible to fathom on such a beautiful evening.

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A Tohoku smile to touch the heart of the most hardened. This is the welcome you get in Ishinomaki!

7 Stars: Cruising in Kyushu

The 7 Stars or Nanatsuboshi (ななつ星) cruise train started operating in October 2013 and has proved a huge hit, both with the domestic market and international travellers alike. The concept, design and course have been very carefully thought out to provide a wonderful and relaxing experience of travelling Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu.

All aboard!

The significance of the name is three fold: Firstly, the train travels around Kyushu which has seven prefectures- though ironically, both the courses which are offered only visit five prefectures.You can either take a shorter course of 1 night and 2 days, or a longer version which is 3 nights and 4 days. I won’t go into detail but you can see a full description of the courses here.

Seven Stars

However, if we look to the second point, the ommision of two prefectures doesn’t seem such a big deal afterall. The 7 Stars aims to take in the seven elements of Kyushu which can be done within the confines of five prefectures. These seven elements are nature, cuisine, hot springs, history and culture, power spots, local hospitality and sightseeing trains. And finally, to really enforce the name, the train has seven carriages.

Entertainment
There are two communal carriages: One dining room and one lounge (occupied by a live pianaist and violinist), followed by a variety of private suites for sleeping in, each as beautifully designed as the next!
Inside7stars
Kyushu has quite a few sightseeing trains but the 7 Stars is by far the most magestic. The train is polished maroon on the outside, decorated with a classic golden logo which often reappears inside- look closely and you’ll find it on your coffee cup, even on the screws in the walls.

Wooden insides
There are large windows, particularly at the back, giving passengers a great view out to the beautiful landscapes, but also an opportunity to wave to the crowds that ineveitably gather to see off the train from each station it pulls out of. Inside, the train is mostly wooden with tasteful fabrics used throughout.

The style is a real mix of Japanese and western fashions. The designer, Mr Eiji Mitooka paid a huge amount of attention to detail and has tied in elements of the course to the design- for example, each room has a beautiful, individually designed ceramic sink, made in Arita. As part of the course, guests get a very exclusive chance to visit the studio in Arita where these are made.

Ceramics

Before boarding the train, I was wondering how the time would pass on the journey. After checking in at the upmarket 7 Stars lounge and being escorted down to the platform through crowds of amateur photographers and train fanatics, the regular stop offs at stations and towns along the way provided a great chance for some sightseeing.

Scenery

On the train, there was a never ending supply of drinks- alcoholic or soft drinks, even some latte art was being presented!

coffee

We ate fantastically well on the train, enjoying Japanese and French cuisine, this mixture of styles mirroring the fusion present in the design of the train itself.

Food
The 7 Stars was really special and unique- though, it is in high demand! I can’t describe everything in this short post so please do look to the official website for some more information. Even if you are not able to ride the 7 Stars, make sure your visit to Japan involves some time in Kyushu, enjoying their seven elements!

The backend

An Autumn Tour of Japan – Day by Day In 17 Syllables

This autumn’s Japan Enchantment was certainly one that provided my group with natural enchantment. As a Tour Leader, I am often barking instructions, explanations, giving meeting times and imparting the nitty-gritty in order to get the job done. However, I  do still get the opportunity to step back and acknowledge life’s sublime moments, even at work. Haiku and photos should more than capture those moments, so here goes…

Day 1 TokyoTokyo scene

The Tangerine Dawn

Punctured by Tokyo’s Needle

Promise of color

Day 2 Nikko
Across the mountains

Clouds settle and rest

As dying flames lick rockface

Autumn Zen Landscapes

Day 3 Nikko

Waterfalls in Nikko

Majestic Kegon

Her Hair of Silken Water

Nikko’s Hyrdro Queen

Day 4 Karuizawa

Autumn leaves

Reflective Maples

Tearful ripples sketch the pond

Soon to fade away

Day 5 Karuizawa

Fallen

Wet Ancient Timepiece

Witness to history’s course

Records nature’s death

Day 6 Nagano

Snow monkey

The elderly Man

Life patterns scarred on calm face

We have felt his pain

Day 7 Kanazawa

Waiting for food

Beady eyed heron

Focus fixed in driving rain

Meal time swims closeby

Day 8 Kanazawa

Koyo colours

Lacquered Storehouse woos

Simplicity wrapped in gold

Nature Holds its own

Day 9 Kyoto

Fun with Geisha

Entrancing beauty

An autumn bird in full flight

The Maiko holds Court

Day 10 Kyoto

Sun and Gardens

The mountain beckons

Spirituality rays

Zen in the morning

 

Day 11 Kyoto

Reflecting 

Rain meets old bamboo

Sepia Kaleidoscope

A trick of nature

Day 12 Hakone

Fuji leaves

She teases keen eyes

Her leafy veil drip-blood red

Mt Fuji on fire

Day 13 Hakone

Natural sculptures

Sculpture meets nature

Spiritual awakening

Saturates the mind

Alternative Japan – Osu district in Nagoya

Our main Japan office is in Nagoya and so I have spent a fair amount of time in the city, Japan’s “third” city – and yes I know that Yokohama is technically second, so Nagoya is further down the list. However, on my most recent visit I realised that I had spent all my time either around Nagoya station or the central shopping and business district of Sakae. Incidentally that’s a city district with only one kanji – name any other famous ones…?

Nagoya shopping malls

So I decided to delve a little deeper to see what else Nagoya has to offer. The result was a very satisfying weekend afternoon wandering around the Osu district close to Osu Kannon, one of Nagoya’s biggest temples. Around the temple is a network of covered shopping arcades, lined with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, cafes and food stalls. The atmosphere reminded me a little of Asakusa in Tokyo, with something of an old-world feel to it, despite the occasionally electronics store. They even have helpers on hand with yellow flags attached to their backs, offering maps, directions and local advice.

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Insert cliché here...

Insert cliché here…

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Lost? Need something? Just ask!

Lost? Need something? Just ask!

Fried local chicken (karaage) seemed to be the thing to eat in Osu, with several hole-in-the-wall shops serving freshly cooked chicken in various flavours to a queue of people. Each stall also had plenty of signature boards from celebrities, though with the number of celebrities Japan has this might not be much of a guide!

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Mmmm...

Mmmm…

So if you thought Nagoya was just bright lights and modern buildings, take a trip to Osu; An afternoon well spent!

2014 Guardian Travel Award Winners

Helen Skelton is very happy to meet InsideAsia's, James Mundy for the second time on the same night.

TV’s Helen Skelton is very happy to meet InsideAsia’s, James Mundy for the second time on the same night at the 2014 Guardian Travel Awards in Agadir, Morocco.

Just a quick post here to say a big ‘thank you’ to those of you who may have voted for us in the 2014 Guadian Travel Awards.

The reader voted awards ceremony took place in Agadir, Morocco (20-22 November) and we are delighted (and pleasantly surprised) to have received not one, but two of travel’s prestigious awards. InsideAsia’s Japan speicalist brand, walked away with the accolades at the long-established travel awards with readers voting InsideJapan as 2014 ‘Best Small Tour Operator’ -

Guardian awards

and ‘Best Online Booking Service’ -

Guardian awards

…with Japan also winning the ‘Best Long-haul country’ for the fourth year in a row. There’s good reason for that…

 

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The awards are testament to the vast amount of knowledge, service and pure passion for the country and culture that help the InsideJapan Tours team stand out from the rest. These characteristics spread across each of the InsideAsia Tours specialist brands which include InsideVietnam Tours and InsideBurma Tours.

Thanks for your votes everyone!

All Aboard Japan’s New Maglev Train!

It’s here: Japan’s first magnetic levitating bullet train, and it has just whisked its first ever passengers on a 500 kph (311 mph) journey between the towns of Uenohara and Fuefuki – a distance of 27 miles. And that’s not even as fast as it can go – in tests in 2003 it hit 581 kph (361 mph), smashing China’s previous record of 475 kph (296 mph).

It may sound like science fiction, but this is science FACT – and you can watch footage of the maglev’s maiden voyage (released by the BBC) below:

Japan’s high-speed rail network

I can’t talk about the new maglev without getting a few words in about Japan’s current high-speed rail network. Many’s the time that I’ve been sitting on a rail replacement bus all the way across London, forking over upwards of 70 quid for a ticket to Bristol, being glared at by a surly ticket officer, or turning up at my destination two hours late because my first train was late (which then made me miss my connecting train, even though that one was late too), when I’ve thought “this wouldn’t happen in Japan”.

Japan’s transportation system is so famous for its efficiency that it has become a cliche. Ask any foreigner in Japan what they love most about the country and I’ll bet my bottom dollar that they’ll mention some permutation of the following: the people, the food, and the public transport system. And that is because Japanese people are really nice, their food is delicious, and their public transport system is nothing short of godly.

Japan’s “bullet train”, called the Shinkansen 新幹線 in Japanese (this, by the by, translates as “new trunk line”, which is a pretty lame name compared to “bullet train” if you ask me), is one of the wonders of the modern world. Let me let you in on a few facts about the bullet train that will make you resent your current commute to work that little bit more:

  • The first Shinkansen line (the Tokaido Shinkansen, which still operates today), was opened in 1964. 1964! That’s fifty years ago this year.
  • Its maximum operating speed is 320 kph (200 mph). Granted, it’s no maglev, but let me tell you that is still bloody fast.
  • It was the world’s first, and continues to be the world’s busiest, high-speed rail network. Over its lifetime, it has transported over 10 billion passengers. (To give you a sense of scale, the current population of the world is about 7 billion. That means the bullet train has transported more passengers than there are people in the world today. Mind blown).
  • In 2012, Japan Rail reported that the Shinkansen’s average annual delay was 36 seconds – and wait – this includes delays caused by natural disasters. In 1997, the annual delay was just 18 seconds.
  • There have never been any fatalities due to derailments or collisions. Ever.

Phew. Take that British Rail.

And what the facts and figures don’t tell you is that travelling on the bullet train is an exciting and enjoyable experience in itself. Not only does it arrive on time and get you from A to B faster than you can say “please can I have a cup of coffee with my sandwich” – the staff are faultlessly polite (they even bow every time they leave the carriage), it’s clean (you can use the loos without holding your breath), they play a cheery little jingle at every station, and they bring a snack trolley down the aisle every hour or so. And compared with trains in the UK, it’s not even expensive!

Anyway, that’s quite enough of my panegyric to the bullet train for one blog post. I’m sure you’re all excited to hear about what the maglev has in store.

Two icons of modern Japan: the bullet train and Mount Fuji

Two icons of modern Japan: the bullet train and Mount Fuji

What’s this new-fangled maglev thingamajig?

“Maglev” is short for “magnetic levitation”, which is a kind of transportation that carries vehicles using magnets instead of wheels. This means maglev trains don’t actually touch the tracks, which means much less friction – and consequently a helluvalot more speed.

Maglev may sound like it belongs in a sci-fi movie, but it’s not even a very new concept. Japan has been testing its maglev trains for decades, and the first commercial maglev line opened for business in Shanghai in 2004 – running at speeds of up to 431 kph (268 mph). Considering that a couple of hundred years ago people thought that you’d die if you went faster than 8 mph, the human race has come a pretty long way in a pretty short space of time. And thanks to the maglev, we will soon be able to go a VERY long way in a VERY short space of time.

Nay-sayers question the need for such an expensive, super-high-speed service is needed when Japan already has such a super-quick train network and frequent domestic flights (not to mention a steadily decreasing population), and to be honest, one does have to wonder. But I’ll leave such speculation to the economics boffs, because frankly all I care about is going really fast.

Japan's maglev

Japan’s maglev

When can I have a go??!!?

Unfortunately, not for a good long while. According to a recent article in the Japan Times, Construction is expected to begin on the maglev track between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027, and is expected to be extended to Osaka by 2045 – just five years shy of the Shinkansen’s centenary. So basically… don’t hold your breath.

500 kph… pshhh. I’m not impressed. Show me a train that goes at 5,000 kph – then maybe I’ll be impressed.

Oh yeah? Well get this: never one to be left behind, China is already testing a “Super-maglev” concept train that would work the same as a maglev, but would be encased in a vacuum tube to eliminate speed limitations caused by air resistance. Also called a “Vactrain“, these could theoretically reach speeds of up to 6,400-8,000 kph (4,000-5,000 mph). That means you’d be able to get from Beijing to New York in just a couple of hours.

Proposed "vactrain" tube

Proposed “vactrain” tube

And if that isn’t amazing, I really don’t know what is…would be nice if Japan could do it first though :-)

Futurama = Reality

Futurama = Reality

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